The government has negotiated its ‘Safety Zone’ with the wrong group – praying that the right group agrees
In the most recent effort to bring a measure of peace the conflict-besieged southernmost provinces, where the ongoing insurgency has claimed 7,000 lives, the government is now promoting the idea of a “Safety Zone”. It imagines a ceasefire being observed within this designated area – an end to separatist militants shooting at state security forces and attacking them with bombs. The government is in exchange dangling a modicum of autonomy for the region.
Inside the zone will be a so-called “safe house”, where representatives from both sides will purportedly work together on a wide range of activities and issues to advance peace and reconciliation in the South. The Safety Zone notion has emerged from dialogue between Thai negotiators led by retired General Aksara Kherdphol and MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation for six long-standing Malay Muslim separatist movements. The Malaysian government assisted in this process.
The immediate problem with this arrangement is that none of the participants controls any of the active insurgents. That control rests with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which has thus far refused to participate in the dialogue, reportedly because its negotiators have yet to be properly trained and also because it wants representatives of the international community observing and mediating the process. Thai sources have said Malaysia has secured a commitment from BRN leaders that they will not sabotage the approach, but the Safety Zone concept remains little more than a leap of faith.
Two years ago, when it was leaked to the press that Narathiwat’s Joh Ai Rong district would be designated a Safety Zone, scores of BRN militants used a hospital as a staging ground to attack a unit of Paramilitary Rangers next door. Their aim was to discredit whatever progress the dialogue process might have achieved. Today, as long as it’s unclear why the BRN has had an apparent change of heart, any such commitment must be taken with a grain of salt. And nor should the government rush to conclude that this will be the game-changer everyone’s been praying for.
For far too long, the government in Bangkok and the military in the South have been obsessed with public relations campaigns, forever trying to convince the general Thai public that they’re making progress. In reality, the authorities and policymakers have done nothing but skirt around the key issues underscoring the historical grievances of the Patani Malays – the very reasons they took up arms against the Thai state in the first place.
The idea of a Safety Zone thus emerges as another confidence-building measure. But the question that remains is why the government is putting so much time and resources into the channel its opened with MARA Patani, when it’s clear that that group has nothing to do with the individuals pulling the triggers and setting off bombs.
In the previous decade, government officials designated various villages “communities free from harm”. It didn’t take long before the insurgents were attacking these very villages in a bid to discredit the authorities. Just as quickly, the authorities realised they’d once again shot themselves in the foot.
It is to be hoped that, this time around, the authorities have learned from past mistakes and will not rush to any conclusions that will backfire as badly.